There has never been a moment when it was more necessary to separate overall US policy from the whims of whoever occupies the White House.
Granted, developments in the Far East have always see-sawed between crisis and opportunity, particularly for China and North Korea, given the obvious differences in political, social and economic dynamics with the US.
After stumbling through numerous reforms and fending off the threat of becoming a Soviet vassal state, China aligned itself economically with the West in the 1980s and reaped the benefits no more than a decade later.
Its growing wealth has allowed the communist state to form the third largest military in the world and commit billions of dollars to expanding its influence in developing countries.
This has resulted in a notable shift by the developing world toward China, and away from traditional dependency on Western governments and financial institutions, infrastructure development and military hardware.
China’s rise is still viewed with great suspicion in Washington. A growing trade imbalance and America’s diminishing influence in East Asia have turned China into a punchbag for American politicians, much like Japan in the early 1980s.
But China has become too important to the global economy; its reach is too wide and its ties too deep for any hawkish Cold War era isolation, containment and “maximum pressure” policy to work.
Even the current trade spat will end with an anticlimactic retreat into a tense coexistence, with China preoccupying itself with the Belt and Road Initiative to answer revised versions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
North Korea, on the other hand, after decades of occupations and war, realized that the development of nuclear weapons was the key to deterring encroachments on its sovereignty. That the pursuit of nuclear weapons resulted in punishing sanctions and international isolation only proved the need to further nuclearize.
The US is now facing a dilemma whereby it cannot ease pressure on Pyongyang without threatening its ties with South Korea and Japan. The biggest headache for the Trump administration is that US policy demands unilateral moves from Pyongyang to denuclearize before lifting or easing sanctions, while North Korea’s expectation has always been a multi-step denuclearization process in which both countries match each step.
For instance, Washington and Seoul would like to see a dismantling of the Yongbyon facilities, which account for 80% of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, as a sign of Pyongyang’s commitment. In Kim Jong Un’s view, however, denuclearization of the peninsula means South Korea must also leave the US nuclear umbrella. Washington would also have to withdraw nearly 30,000 troops from South Korea, which would probably bring a formal end to the Korean War.
For Japan and South Korea, economic and military ties to Washington have come to define the symbiosis that is characteristic of America’s approach to diplomacy. But the jury is still out on whether these partnerships are equitable — a question the Trump administration has sought to address, especially on trade, and paying for a permanent US military presence.
Japan and South Korea remain wary of a rogue, nuclear-armed North Korea, and share deep suspicions of Beijing’s new superpower muscle. Both countries lean on the US to check such threats. The US benefits from both countries investing heavily in its economy via purchases of military hardware, debt and assets, provided American bases remain open and troop levels consistent.
However, the Trump administration’s pursuit of thawed relations with Pyongyang despite few guarantees of denuclearization has raised eyebrows in Seoul and Tokyo. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has opted for a conciliatory approach that offers North Korea economic incentives and food aid in exchange for dialogue and cooperation on the peninsula.
Trump’s impromptu meeting with Kim may be viewed with confusion and wariness by the rest of the world, but for the Koreas it was one of many little steps toward normalized relations. North Korea in particular will take the view that its nuclear program has not only deterred threats, it has also forced the US to the negotiating table.
Elsewhere, a tariff war between China and the US is now in its 19th month, and they have agreed only to further talks, not a timeline for de-escalation and normal trade. Washington has also sought to penalize Chinese companies for ties to the communist government, especially those that supply hardware used in critical global telecommunications networks. The US fears these companies may be susceptible to undue influence from Beijing, which still demands technology transfers and fails to prosecute intellectual property theft. There is little incentive for China to toe the Washington line; indeed, it plans to ramp up its advanced manufacturing capabilities and siphon off market share from American and European corporations.
So far, therefore, there has been no shortage of developments in Trump’s designs for the Far East, which have come more from a preference for the unconventional —even contradictory — than logical long-term strategies. The most dangerous aspect of the US president’s approach, to North Korea in particular, is that it is sending a strong signal to countries such as Iran that the only way to defend themselves is to acquire nuclear status as quickly as possible, and force Washington to back off.